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History of the Supreme Court of Nevada

H.O. Beatty, James Lewis and C.M. Brosnan. 1864.
H.O. Beatty, James Lewis and C.M. Brosnan. 1864.

The area that is now the state of Nevada was originally part of the Provisional State of Deseret, later to become Utah Territory. Sitting in Salt Lake City or one of the other territorial capitals, five hundred miles to the east, the Utah territory Supreme Court has little impact on the residents at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

With the establishment of the Nevada Territory in 1861, three justices were appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to the Territorial Supreme Court. They were Chief Justice George Turner, and Associate Justices Horatio N. Jones and Gordon N. Mott. In 1864, Powhatan B. Locke and John W. North were appointed associate justices to replace Jones and Mott.

The justices also served as trial judges, "riding the circuits," until, beleaguered by politics and volatile mining disputes, all resigned in August of 1864.

Supreme Court Chambers in Capitol Building
Supreme Court Chambers in Capitol

When Nevada achieved statehood on October 31, 1864, James F. Lewis, Henry O. Beatty, and C.M. Bronsan were elected to the first State Supreme Court. The state constitution provides that justices be elected for six-year terms. The most senior member of the court in commission becomes the Chief Justice and should two justices be eligible, the Chief is chosen by lot. Originally the Court consisted of only three justices, but as the state has grown, so has the number of cases the Supreme Court must consider. In 1967 the legislature exercised the power granted to it by the constitution and increased the number of justices to five. The number of justices was again increased to seven by the legislature in 1997.

Thomas Hawley (1873-79)
Thomas Hawley (1873-79)

The Territorial Supreme Court issued only eighty-two opinions between 1861 and 1864. While 20,000 cases were filed between the years 1862 and 1989, case number 44,000 is expected to be filed in the year 2000, doubling the number in only eleven years. So far, efforts to amend the constitution to create and intermediate appellate court to help relieve the workload have failed. However, the 1997 legislature passed the first of three steps (two approvals by the legislature and one by the voters) toward the creation of an intermediate court.

The opinions of the Territorial Supreme Court have never been published, but the most important decisions of the Nevada Supreme Court are published in an annual volume entitled Nevada Reports, which can be found in most libraries.